Martha Nussbaum
Martha Nussbaum

According to author and University of Chicago professor Martha Nussbaum, many people in the U.S. and Europe would like to believe that religious intolerance is an issue that characterizes an earlier, darker era of civilization. However, closer examination reveals an uninformed and intolerant message behind a series of recent laws targeting Muslims around the world. On Nov. 2, Nussbaum lectured on American and European intolerance toward and fear of Muslims, specifically regarding the burqa, a bulky outer garment worn by some Muslim women that covers the hair and face.


In April 2011, France passed a law making it illegal to cover one’s face in public. The mandate was targeted specifically at Muslim women who wear burqas to cover their faces. French President Sarkozy defended the ban, stating, “The burqa is not welcome in France because it is contrary to our values and contrary to the ideals we have of a woman's dignity.”


All across Europe, similar laws placing prohibitions on veils and other head coverings are being debated, and sometimes passed. In the U.S., the legal situation for Muslim women is slightly better, as no laws to ban head coverings have been proposed. However, laws that place a disproportionately high burden on Muslims have been drafted in some states.


Nussbaum argues that though the burqa’s critics may be well-intentioned in their beliefs, their statements often betray a certain ignorance and lack of religious tolerance. She cited five common positions advocated by those who criticize Muslim head coverings, providing counterexamples and evidence against each.


The first argument stems from concerns over security: because the burqa is bulky and obscures the face, it may be easier for its wearers to transport weapons or explosives. Furthermore, burqa wearers are difficult to identify because their faces are not exposed. However, in a more realistic scenario involving terrorism, this would hardly be the case.


As a counterexample, Nussbaum cited the 1999 Supreme Court case City of Chicago vs. Morales, in which a Chicago law against loitering was struck down on grounds of being too arbitrary. The anti-loitering law targeted gang members. According to the ordinance, any group of people that was suspected of remaining a public space for no reason could be ordered to disperse. The law proved to be both under-inclusive and over-inclusive, as many people who were not associated with gang activity were forced to disperse or face charges, while most gang members found ways to evade the law while continuing their illegal activities.


Similarly, Nussbaum argued that a ban on burqas unfairly targets many innocent people who have no affiliation with terrorism. In reality, a terrorist would be unlikely to wear a burqa because it raises too much suspicion, and so the ban would be ineffective.


A second argument against head coverings stems from a general belief that, without access to a person’s face, the normal “transparency and reciprocity” of everyday interaction is negatively affected.


On the contrary, people hide their faces in many situations that have nothing to do with Islamic practice, such as bundling a scarf over the face for warmth or wearing a surgical mask for safety. These precautions would be unaffected by an ordinance outlawing head coverings, even though masks and warm scarves also hide the face. Instead, Nussbaum believes these laws place an unjust burden of Muslim women because of the discomfort that people feel around those who are different from themselves. 


Third, head coverings are sometimes looked upon as tools used to degrade and objectify women, denying them individuality and robbing them of dignity. However, from Nussbaum’s perspective Western society uses its own powerful symbols to portray women as “objects made for male consumption.” These include impossibly high media standards for beauty, a culture that embraces plastic surgery, and fashion trends that feature skimpy clothing. If one wanted to totally eradicate female objectification, one would have to target all of these areas, not just the burqa.


Nussbaum believes that individuals should be free to decide whether or not burqas are morally questionable, and that the law has no place to order a woman to remove a piece of clothing that may hold personal significance to her.


A fourth common argument is that women are coerced to wear the burqa. This is a broad, largely untrue statement that implies that Muslim women are more susceptible to domestic violence than non-Muslims. Statistically, this has not been shown to be true, and there is little evidence to support the claim that women are coerced into covering their faces. Rather than illegalizing head coverings, Nussbaum argues that women should have access to the education and the rights that would give them the power to make their own choices about what to wear. Some people, including Muslim women, freely choose a life of authority and constraint. One need not look further than the volunteer-based American military to see why somebody would make such a choice.


Finally, a fifth argument that Nussbaum discusses is that burqas are unhealthy since they trap heat and are not comfortable. Nussbaum explains that, like any other article of clothing, the burqa can be made in a variety of fabrics, making it warm or breathable depending on its construction. In India, where sun exposure and extreme heat are common, people have for centuries worn clothing that covers the entire body .This sort of attire, rather than being dangerous or uncomfortable, actually protects skin from sun damage.


In contrast to the claim that burqas are unhealthy, Nussbaum points out that women in the U.S. and Europe are not only free to wear high heels, but are encouraged to do so, even though this particular article of clothing has been shown to be uncomfortable and even cause foot problems. Many women also wear revealing clothing in high heat, exposing their skin to UV damage. These counterexamples suggest that the link between clothing and health is much more complex than it may appear.


Nussbaum cites intolerance toward Muslim women as a starting point to address the  issue of intolerance. Her talk emphasized that the best way to overcome prejudice is through careful examination of oneself and others. Through understanding, we might learn how to curb our fearful instincts toward the unknown and embrace unfamiliar cultures and traditions with sensitivity and tolerance.

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